IRBIL, Iraq (AP) — As Iraqi Kurds awaited the results of their landmark referendum on independence from Baghdad on Tuesday, thousands of Iranian Kurds held rallies in their support, reflecting the strong current of nationalism that runs through Kurdish communities across the region.
The vote, which took place on Monday, was billed by the Iraqi Kurdish leadership as an exercise in self-determination. But to Baghdad, it threatens a redrawing of Iraq’s borders, and leaders in Turkey and Iran fear the move would embolden their own Kurdish populations.
Regional authorities in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish north put the turnout at over 70 percent, but many voters reported irregularities during Monday’s balloting, including cases of individuals voting multiple times and voting without proper registration.
For decades, Kurdish politics have hinged on dreams of an independent Kurdish state. When colonial powers drew the map of the Middle East after World War I, the Kurds were divided among Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq.
Regional tensions also escalated following Monday’s independence vote.
Iraqi troops began joint military exercises with Turkey along the border the two countries share. During a meeting with the country’s top military officers after polls closed Monday night, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi pledged to “defend (Iraqi civilians) against any harm.”
Fearing the vote could be used to redraw Iraq’s borders, taking a sizeable part of the country’s oil wealth with it, al-Abdi called the referendum an act of “sedition” that “escalated the ethnic and sectarian tension” across the country.
In Iran, thousands of Kurds poured into the streets in the cities of Baneh, Saghez and Sanandaj on Monday night. Footage shared online by Iranian Kurds showed demonstrators waving lit mobile phones in the air and chanting their support into the night. Some footage also showed Iranian police officers assembling nearby or watching the demonstrators.
Iranian state television on Tuesday acknowledged the rallies, a rarity in the Islamic Republic though it was unclear what sparked the acknowledgment. Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard and its regular army have been running military exercises near the border with Iraq’s Kurdish region in a sign of Tehran’s displeasure at the Kurdish referendum.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reiterated on Tuesday that his country is considering all options ranging from military intervention to economic sanctions against Iraq’s Kurdish region.
Speaking in Ankara, Erdogan said, however, that he hopes the Iraqi Kurdish leadership will abandon aims of creating a separate state and not force Turkey into enforcing sanctions.
“I hope the northern Iraqi administration gathers itself together and abandons this adventure with a dark ending,” Erdogan said, adding that the landlocked Iraqi Kurdish region would not be able to survive without Turkey’s support in helping export its oil.
“The moment we shut the valve it’s finished for them,” Erdogan said, referring to a pipeline into Turkey. The Turkish leader said no country other than Israel supports the Iraqi Kurdish referendum on independence, which he described as “invalid” and “fraudulent” and said attempts by Kurds to form an independent state are doomed to fail.
The United States and United Nations both opposed the Iraqi Kurdish referendum, describing it as a unilateral and potentially destabilizing move.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the U.S. wouldn’t alter its “historic relationship” with Iraqi Kurds but the referendum would increase hardships for the Kurdish region of Iraq. She said the Islamic State group and other extremists are hoping to “exploit instability and discord.”
Statements from U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres expressed regret that the vote was held and said issues between Iraq’s federal government and Kurdish region should be resolved through dialogue.
Kurdish electoral commission spokesman Sherwan Zerar put the turnout at about 3.3 million of the eligible 4.5 million residents. Official results from the election were expected later Tuesday, though many expect a resounding “yes” vote.
Associated Press writers Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, contributed to this report.